AOPA objects to Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation implementation date

August 8, 2002

Docket Management System
U.S. Department of Transportation
Room Plaza 401
400 Seventh Street, SW.
Washington, DC 20590-0001

RE: Docket No. FAA-2002-12261; Notice No. 02-09, DRVSM

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), representing the interests of over 385,000 aircraft owners and pilots nationwide, opposes the implementation strategy outlined in the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (DRVSM) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. As proposed, DRVSM would reduce the vertical separation minima applied to aircraft operating between Flight Level (FL) 290 and FL410 from 2,000 to 1,000 feet over the United States by December 2004. This means that even if the FAA takes quick action and publishes a final rule by June 2003, the industry and FAA will have a mere 16 months to complete the equipment installation and certification of over 15,000 turbine-powered aircraft. AOPA does not believe that the FAA or the industry have the resources to meet this aggressive timeframe. Instead, AOPA favors a phased implementation strategy that allows the FAA and operators time to meet the regulatory requirements of the rule.

The aggressive implementation schedule outlined in this rulemaking action will likely result in economic and operational hardships for many within the aviation community. AOPA recognizes that the federal government and airlines will realize system-wide advantages through the utilization of DRVSM, in the form of fuel and time savings and increased system capacity. Unfortunately, the benefits to non-airline, turbine-powered aircraft are not nearly as significant and do not offset the cost of equipage. However, the penalty for not equipping is significant for these operators in that they will be excluded from this airspace.

AOPA does not believe that the FAA can meet the certification demand that its proposed implementation schedule creates. Therefore, AOPA favors a phased implementation strategy (FL350-FL390 by December 2004) as agreed on early in 2001, and an extension of at least than two years making the full implementation date December 2006. Doing so will allow the FAA and operators the time needed to comply with the requirements of RVSM airspace.

Implementation schedule

Many of AOPA's concerns are centered on the time and cost needed to equip and certify existing airframes, as well as the FAA's ability to meet the proposed implementation schedule.

  • With the final rule's anticipated publication date of June 2003, owners will have less than a year and a half to bring their aircraft into compliance.
  • The general aviation aircraft fleet is far less homogeneous than the air carrier community, which complicates the issues of service bulletin development and publication and aircraft installations. Manufacturer service bulletins are written to address production aircraft in their original configuration, but most general aviation turbine-powered aircraft are modified to meet customer's requirements. This means manufacturers (and shops) not only have to address a large variety of airframe types, but also variations in configuration. Also, the associated training of FAA field office personnel becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile in a short timeframe.
  • The systemic limitations involved in RVSM certification are considerable. Currently, there are only two FAA-approved engineering firms capable of performing the required airframe and avionics upgrades. These two companies can only complete an average of two airframes a month, taking little of the burden off of the FAA. According to industry officials, the FAA currently handles a maximum of 3,000 field approvals per year. Therefore, even if the FAA conducted only DRVSM field approvals for the next year, (which is impractical) it would still leave thousands of airframes noncompliant.
  • There is also a question of whether or not the components needed to make the necessary modifications will be available for all impacted airframes. There simply aren't enough certified avionics and equipment manufacturers to meet the artificial demand created by the proposed rule.

Economic issues

  • Those owners/operators unable to meet the proposed deadline will suffer significant economic hardships resulting from the need to operate in a lower altitude stratum.
  • The flexibility of their aircraft will also be compromised due to reduced range or load-carrying capacity at lower altitudes. The "on-top" provision of this rule is an imperfect solution at best, as it ignores the operational limitations of many aircraft types.

Safety

  • Although the DRVSM altitude stratum is at the upper operating limits of many turbo propeller-driven aircraft, it still remains an important safety option for their pilots, particularly when avoiding weather. The rule fails to address the tactical allowance of operations by non-RVSM compliant aircraft. In many regions where en route congestion is limited, this could be accomplished with limited air traffic impact.

Process

  • AOPA remains concerned that this rule was issued without the support of several key industry participants. When you consider that, in early 2001, the FAA had achieved industry-wide consensus to a plan calling for phased implementation, the question of process becomes that much more significant.

AOPA does not dispute the long-term capacity-enhancing potential of DRVSM. The addition of six flight levels offers increased flexibility to the National Airspace System (NAS). However, any advantages gained in the en route environment will not be fully realized until systemic "choke-point" issues in the terminal environment are resolved. The infrastructure necessary to do this is addressed in the FAA's Operational Evolutionary Plan (OEP), of which DRVSM is a component. Many of these OEP initiatives so critical to improving capacity in the NAS, such as expanding the number of runways throughout the country, are long-term solutions. As a result, the ability to leverage the full potential of DRVSM in the short term is questionable, thus AOPA questions the need for full implementation by the end of 2004.

In short, AOPA is mindful of the need to take full advantage of all available capacity-enhancing tools. However, the FAA must consider all airspace users when implementing new programs or strategies.

Because of DRVSM's importance to the user community, it is incumbent upon the FAA to do everything within its power to ensure its benefits are realized with a minimal impact. As a result, AOPA recommends that the FAA pursue a phased implementation strategy and extend the deadline for total compliance to at least December 2006.

Respectfully,

Melissa K. Bailey
Vice President
Air Traffic, Regulatory, and Certification Policy

August 7, 2002